Monday, June 29, 2020

the last book I read

What's Bred In The Bone
by Robertson Davies.

We are back in the company of most of the principal protagonists of The Rebel Angels, indeed pretty much all of those who made it to the end of that book alive: clergyman and author Simon Darcourt, exotic gypsy temptress Maria Magdalena Theotoky, or Maria Cornish as she now is, and her husband Arthur Cornish, banker and heir to most of the estate of his uncle, art critic and collector Francis Cornish.

These people, who we already know slightly from the first book, which focused on the machinations around disposing of old Francis Cornish's will, are really only here to provide a framing device for the main story, which is that of Francis' life. And, like any seemingly normal life examined in close detail, it turns out to be slightly stranger than you might imagine.

Born in a small Canadian town (Blairlogie, supposedly modelled on Davies' own real-life childhood home of Renfrew, Ontario) in the early years of the twentieth century to a French-Canadian mother and a father (also Francis Cornish) who was literally from Cornwall, Francis jr.'s early experiences were a mixture of the commonplace (awkwardness at school, in his case due to being the posh boy from the "big house") and the more unusual, specifically his discovery of his secret elder brother, also called Francis - a pin-headed, furiously masturbating imbecile - locked away in an attic room and secretly cared for by a couple of domestic servants. One of these servants, Zadok Hoyle, also works as the local undertaker and takes Francis under his wing. In particular Zadok encourages Francis to pursue his love for art and drawing, through the slightly macabre method of allowing Francis to sketch the corpses at the funeral parlour.

Francis soon leaves Blairlogie for higher education in Toronto and then subsequently at Oxford, where he makes a few key acquaintances: his cousin Ismay, who he falls in love with, Tancred Saraceni, a famous art expert and restorer of Old Masters to whom Francis becomes a sort of apprentice, and some chaps from MI5 who feel that Francis might be their sort of chap and might like to do some discreet snooping for them. It turns out that Francis' father (also Francis, if you're keeping up) spent many years doing some similarly shady work.

Ismay eventually succumbs to Francis' patient wooing, only for it to transpire, shortly after their marriage, that the child she is carrying isn't his, and that she doesn't really love him at all, and that furthermore she's going to scarper with her lover and would he mind terribly making sure the child is provided for? Chastened by this experience Francis throws himself into his work, and as it happens MI5 have plenty of that for him as World War II has just kicked off. Coincidentally the work they want him to do involves close collaboration with his old mentor Tancred Saraceni, in a complex scheme based in Germany involving restoring old artworks and shipping them out of the country only to then arrange for their acquisition by the Nazi regime in the hope of acquiring some valuable non-German artwork in exchange. 

Francis hones his own painting skills during this period and finds that he has a natural affinity with the styles of the paintings he is restoring, so much so that he produces a large triptych depicting the marriage at Cana and allows it to be passed off as a genuine work. This is the cause of some slight awkwardness during Francis' post-war involvement in the various groups redistributing artwork hoarded by the Nazis (the real-life subject on which the film The Monuments Men is loosely based) when the painting is presented for analysis by the assembled group of experts. But the subterfuge holds, and Francis doesn't feel compelled to confess.

Already with no particular need to work for a living, Francis then finds himself the sole beneficiary of Tancred Saraceni's will, the contents of which include several Swiss bank accounts where much mysteriously-acquired money has been squirrelled away. Back in Canada, Francis devotes the rest of his life to collecting art that takes his fancy, and to being a slightly cantankerous mentor and advisor to some younger Canadian artists.

So now we do the wibbly-wobbly dissolve back to the framing device, just in time to witness Arthur Cornish reluctantly give his blessing for the biography Simon Darcourt is proposing writing about Francis, on the grounds that, hey, what Bad Stuff could possibly be revealed that might tarnish Francis' - and by association the whole Cornish family's - reputation?

The first thing to say here is: I've set that last paragraph up to imply that the the last novel (The Lyre Of Orpheus) in the trilogy will feature Darcourt's biography of Francis Cornish and may feature his as-yet-undiscovered forged works in some way. Of course it may very well feature no such thing; you should note that I had a pretty confident idea of where the third Matrix movie was going to take the story after seeing the second one, and that turned out to be totally wrong as well. I still maintain, incidentally, that my idea for the third movie was better than the actual third movie, which was rather disappointing.

Anyway, back to the book. This is a book which delights in its own erudition, and Davies' evident extensive knowledge of art. It's making some sly points about art forgery as well, the most obvious one being: how to determine the inherent "value" (not necessarily, or not only, monetary) of a work of art? Should it just be from a consideration of the work on its own merits devoid of any context? Or does its provenance matter? i.e. whether it is by who it purports to be by, and is from the era that it purports to be from? Does the exact same scene painted in the exact same style using the exact same materials (and, if you like, for the sake of argument, the exact same sequence of brushstrokes) have a different intrinsic value if painted by, say, Van Dyck in the 17th century, or Eric Hebborn in the 1970s?

Francis Cornish himself is an odd character whose only fully satisfactory personal relationship appears to be be the resolutely no-strings-attached one he has with Ruth Nibsmith, the governess at the German country house where he does his wartime restoration work with Saraceni. There is just a suggestion late in the book of some previously unexpressed homosexuality in his (strictly platonic) relationship with younger art critic Aylwin Ross, though this all gets rather complicated when Ross kills himself after an ill-advised attempt to use government money to purchase a batch of artwork including, ironically, Francis' own The Marriage At Cana

For all the depth of research and general erudition on show here, this isn't as much fun as The Rebel Angels, partly because of the structure - a framing device set up to facilitate a dive into stuff we already broadly know the outcome of removes some of the potential suspense of a more "real-time" structure, by which I mean we already know Francis lives to a ripe and wealthy old age, so he's not going to be unexpectedly murdered by the SS during the war, or disgraced and impoverished by his forgery becoming public knowledge. And there is just a whiff of fogeyish distaste for "modern" art (which basically seems to mean anything done during the twentieth century) which I found slightly unpalatable. 

There's nothing wrong with this, though, and it was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize, a prize eventually won by Kingsley Amis' The Old Devils, a book which (as I've said before) I like very much. I can get behind The Old Devils being ahead of What's Bred In The Bone in the running; if I were being completely honest I'd have to say that the benefit of hindsight leads me to conclude that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (the only other one I've read off that year's shortlist) probably should have won.

Off the top of my head the only other book on this list to prominently feature art forgery as a plot point is Ripley Under Ground. Ooh, no, wait, there's Chatterton as well. 

Monday, June 22, 2020


One of the things I noticed around the time of Little Richard's death a month or so ago was a proliferation of related articles in various media using as a headline some variant of the famous closing line from probably his most famous song, Tutti Frutti. I say "some variant" because there doesn't seem to be a canonical spelling of the phrase, hardly surprisingly since it doesn't feature any actual words, and I say "closing line" because the only time the phrase appears in the song is as the very last words. Whoa, there, Neddy, you may be saying, he says it after every chorus! Not so, in fact: here is a sober and scholarly analysis of what he actually says and when:
  • 0:00 wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 0:15 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 0:46 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 1:17 wop-bob-a-loo-mob-AAAOOOOWW
  • 1:48 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 2:20 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lop-bam-boom
So you can see that the bop-bom line is the standard one, with a couple of variations - specifically, dropping of the a- that precedes it at the start of the song and in the partial phrase that introduces the saxophone break about halfway through.

A related topic (in that it relates to last lines of songs) is the one which came up in a quiz I participated in over Zoom a couple of weeks ago. There was a music round which featured the following question: what do the songs Virginia Plain and Up the Junction have in common with each other, and with no other singles that have reached the UK Top 10? This is one where you'll either instantly know the answer (as I did) or won't have any idea at all. The answer is that the title of the song is the last line of the song's lyrics, and moreover appears nowhere else in the song. This second caveat is important, as for instance Let It Be by The Beatles finishes with the title of the song, but it has also previously been sung about a gazillion times during the song. The obvious other example that sprang to mind was Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose regular chorus contains the phrase "I ain't no fortunate one" and which only changes to "I ain't no fortunate son" just as the song starts to fade out (at about 2:12 in the linked video). Strictly there is a "no, no, no" after that which means it's not technically the last lyric, but I think we can make a case for it being the last line. 

Finally, back to The Beatles: it is an oddity of their single output that many of their most popular songs have the song's title as the first lyric. Of the 27 songs on the definitive(ish) singles compilation 1, for instance, 10 (a whopping 37%) have the song's title as the first lyric: She Loves You, Can't Buy Me Love, Help!, Yesterday, Paperback Writer, Penny Lane, Lady Madonna, Hey Jude, Something and The Long And Winding Road. Furthermore Love Me Do and A Hard Day's Night only miss out by the narrowest of margins. This could be a coincidence, it could be a conscious songwriting policy, or it could just be that the band were exceptionally bad at coming up with names for songs and just took the approach of saying: fuck it, what's the first line? That'll do.

Monday, June 15, 2020

twas light years of time since his mission did start

You'll recall my tentative wager on it being either bulb 5 or bulb 12 that bought the farm next in the kitchen; well in a salutary lesson about the dangers of gambling it's actually bulb number 2 that has gone. Previous self-immolations of this particular spot in the lighting layout include being part of the very first pair of bulbs to expire back in May 2014, whereupon I replaced it with an IKEA LED bulb which then led an entirely uneventful existence for just over six years (2229 days, to be precise) until expiring a few days ago. 

That is, hardly surprisingly, the longest single life-span on record (on this blog, anyway) for a single light bulb. I can't remember exactly how much I paid for the original set of IKEA bulbs, but I have a feeling it was around £4 each; if so then that works out at something like 0.18 pence per day.

incidental music spot of the day

We've recently acquired both an Amazon FireStick and a subscription to Disney+ in an attempt to broaden our kiddy-entertaining horizons a bit, especially during the current lockdown. One of the things that that's enabled us to do is instigate a movie night on Saturdays where we watch a wholesome family-oriented movie with all three kids, then pack the boy off to bed and watch something very slightly (but probably not much) more challenging. At the moment we're working our way through the Toy Story and Herbie series. 

Another thing we've now got access to is a far greater range of short children's animations. The particular one that the boy is currently fixated on is Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a pretty ghastly multicoloured CGI acid flashback nightmare featuring the eponymous rodent and his annoying pals Donald, Goofy and assorted others, having a variety of banal yet implausible adventures that involve some bullshit interactive "learning" element as a sop to parents feeling vaguely guilty about parking the kids in front of the TV at ten o'clock in the morning and skulking off to the kitchen to open a bottle of wine.

The show is, it goes without saying, augmented by some supremely earworm-y theme music at start and finish that you find yourself humming to yourself while in the kitchen long after the kids are in bed and then have to pummel your skull with a steak tenderiser to make it go away. The thing that I only became aware of later, when we attempted to get our Alexa to play the closing Hot Dog song, was that both the opening and closing songs are performed by American alternative rock funsters They Might Be Giants. These guys will be most familiar to casual UK listeners for their 1989 hit Birdhouse In Your Soul, an absurdly catchy number which it feels churlish to criticise, but I will anyway for its overly smug lyrical smart-arsery and (despite being only just over 3 minutes long) going on for about twice as long as it reasonably ought to. TMBG are, it turns out, old hands at producing music aimed at children, alongside their regular adult-oriented output. I would imagine a commission from an entity like the Disney corporation for a couple of bouncy kids' songs would be lucrative enough to finance any number of experimental jazz ear-flute explorations and I can completely see why they do it, and no criticism should be inferred, despite the general loathsomeness of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

Speaking of lyrics, on my first listen to the Hot Dog song (from the next room, so without the benefit of any visual context and perhaps with some loss of sonic fidelity) I was appalled at the thinly-veiled but unmistakable ABSOLUTE FILTH contained in the lyric "we're splitting the seam, we're full of beans". Not an expression I'd ever specifically heard before, but its penetrative connotations seemed obvious. It turns out that this line is sung as the collected company of friends troops out of the Clubhouse at the end of the show, leaving it to magically fold up on itself and disappear, and is in fact "we're splitting the scene, we're full of beans". Those of you who have now got all fired up at the thought of an engorged Mickey Mouse furiously splitting Minnie's seam can almost certainly find something to satisfy you on the internet, Rule 34 being what it is.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

what a state to get yourself into

A couple of things I meant to mention at the end of the Spares book review: firstly I see I mentioned in the Never Let Me Go review the similarity of some of the plot points to the plot of the 2005 film The Island; well obviously the same goes for Spares. Since The Island and Never Let Me Go came out in the same year the film must have been well into production before the book was published, so it's on the whole unlikely that one was a rip-off of the other. The situation with Spares is a bit more interesting, though, since the film rights were purchased some time after its publication in 1996 by DreamWorks Pictures, the same company responsible for The Island. Coincidence, OR IS IT, et cetera. Michael Marshall Smith evidently felt it wasn't worth getting embroiled in a big legal battle about it, or, if he were being honest with himself, would have recognised that while the basic idea was his the film actually pursued the plot strand(s) that he toyed with in the early stages of the book but eventually abandoned in favour of exploring some different (and, arguably, less interesting) ideas.

The other thing worthy of mention about Spares is that it's set in Virginia, the same state in which House of Leaves is largely set (i.e. in that this is the state in which the Navidson house is supposed to reside). It could be argued that Mortal Causes and Lanark share some settings as well since some of Lanark (book 4, principally) appears to be set in a highly fictionalised version of Edinburgh.

Back to Virginia, though: I had occasion to consult a large-scale map of the USA while trying to set some questions for an online pub quiz some friends organised a couple of weeks ago and got to thinking about points where several states meet (or nearly meet). The famous one of these is of course at Four Corners, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. None of this resulted in a usable quiz question (although I did cash in the one about Pierre, South Dakota from here), but it set me thinking: what is the shortest straight line you can draw on a map which crosses four states? Depending on your point of view the answer could be zero, if you consider the quadripoint at Four Corners to be simultaneously in all four states. If you don't deem that to be an acceptable answer I think a strong candidate is the north-south line joining Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, as below. Google Maps reckons it's around 18 miles; you could walk that in a day.

Obviously you can extend that question to larger numbers of states: I haven't considered all the numbers but I'll offer you the following theoretical 5-state journey of a little over 60 miles visiting (going NE-SW) Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Needless to say others have considered this question (or very s,light variants of it) and, I'm happy to say, come up with the same answer. The only comparable one I could find is the line of just under 80 miles which connects Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas.

Finally, the pièce de résistance: a 10-state journey of just over 400 miles taking in (let's go SW-NE this time) Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Again, others seem to agree that this is the right area, although note that they're asking (and answering) a subtly different question.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

the last book I read

by Michael Marshall Smith.

Jack Randall has got a few problems. Ex-army, with a host of memories of the Bad Stuff, an on-off addiction to designer drug Rapt, fleeing various problems in his former life in New Richmond, Virginia, not least an ongoing dispute with some local crime lords that resulted in the gruesome murder of his wife and daughter, and currently earning a crust as the caretaker of a shady facility which houses clones of notable people and keeps them alive just on the off-chance that one of these notables might ski into a snowplough and lose some limbs, at which point hello, inmate 46, time for you to have a bit of un-anaesthetised limb surgery.

Jack doesn't really have a great deal to do apart from keep the internal doors locked to prevent the clones wandering about the place and occasionally assist in rounding up the relevant ones when John Q Celebrity needs a full-body skin graft. But Jack is a man with an unerring instinct for getting into trouble, and he's soon letting the clones (or "spares", as they're known) wander the place and teaching them how to talk and read. Inevitably this results in him getting a bit attached to them, and when the next visit from the organ-harvesting squad comes around he engineers an escape with a handful of the spares.

Jack has some crazy ideas about heading off to Florida and starting a new life, but first he needs to realise some money, and the best way to do that is via a clandestine trip back to New Richmond, since that's where all Jack's contacts are. Most of the inhabitants of New Richmond live inside a giant abandoned aircraft, grounded there by mechanical problems some time after the destruction of old Richmond. Getting in and out cleanly without either getting collared by someone wanting to finish off some unfinished business or succumbing to the temptation to revisit some aspects of his former life is the key thing here, though, and needless to say Jack fails in both respects, so much so that by the time he returns to where he and the spares have been hiding out, most of them have been abducted by persons unknown who want them for their own nefarious purposes.

So Jack is obliged to return to New Richmond to try to solve the mystery and rescue the spares. This entails engaging with some unpalatable things from his past, firstly his former army colleague and now New Richmond's foremost crime boss, Johnny Vinaldi, who Jack strongly suspects may have been involved in the murder of his wife and daughter. Jack and Johnny's army days involved much time spent in the mind-warping computer-generated netherworld of The Gap, and Jack soon discovers that he will need to return there to rescue the spares and exorcise some of his own personal demons on the way, and once back in the "real" world exact some revenge on the people behind the whole scheme.

Any book seeking to relocate some sort of hard-boiled thriller plot to a futuristic milieu (where, usually, everything is simultaneously a) bafflingly hi-tech and b) a bit run-down and shit) complete with computer-generated alternate reality elements is going to have a hard time avoiding comparisons with classics of the genre like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, not to mention movies like Mad Max and Blade Runner. And, to be honest, as much fun as it is, Spares isn't really in that class, for a few reasons, notably that big chunks of the plot don't really make sense. Take Jack's relationship with Johnny Vinaldi, for example: he starts off wanting to kill him, then, an implausibly short time afterwards, they're tooling up to head into The Gap together to kick some virtual ass, then shortly afterwards Vinaldi is saving Jack's life back in the real world, then shortly after that Jack is holding a gun to his head again after it is revealed that Vinaldi in fact did kill his wife and daughter after all, then he lets him go. The netherworld of The Gap is set up in such a way as to raise a host of unanswered questions: it's clearly not a wholly virtual realm like the "matrix" in Neuromancer, and you do actually physically enter it (and presumably disappear from the "real" world while doing so) so how does the transition from one realm of reality to the other work? As described in the book it's all a bit Platform 9¾ for my liking. And the (presumed) killing at the book's end of the guy who's been trying to kill Jack and is responsible for the abduction of the spares happens a bit disappointingly "offscreen" to be properly satisfying.

The main complaint, though, is that the book's title leads you to expect something rather different from what you actually get. What you get is fine in its own way, but after the initial rescue and flight from the facility the spares play very little part in it except as a sort of plot MacGuffin, and (SPOILER ALERT) they all die, rendering the whole exercise arguably a bit futile. Which is a pity, in a way, because it's an interesting idea almost identical to the one which forms the main plot of Never Let Me Go, published 9 years after Spares in 2005. 

Monday, June 01, 2020

the last book I read

Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin.

Meet Detective Inspector John Rebus. He's a maverick cop, wha doesnae play bi the book, but, God dammit, he gets results. Let's just run through the items on our clipboard briefly, shall we: maverick, yes, troubled relationship and occasional conflict with superiors, yes (but, you know, results and that), borderline alcoholic, check, troubled relationship with various past and current women friends (but, at the same time, mysteriously irresistible to women in a rumpled yet maverick kind of way), check. And, most importantly of all, a sort of mystical ability to sniff out the truth no matter how tortuous the case (and, thereby, get results).

So when a young man is murdered down in the subterranean chambers of Mary King's Close in Edinburgh's Old Town it's Rebus who gets the call. And his suspicions of something a bit rum going on are aroused when he sees the pattern of injuries on the body: shot in both kneecaps before the final shot to the head. Punishment of this sort (with or without the final fatal coup de grace) is highly characteristic of sectarian conflicts in Northern Ireland, and Scotland has its share of that sort of stuff on a day-to-day basis as well (though usually without anyone getting kneecapped). Furthermore the victim has a rudimentary tattoo denoting his allegiance to a loyalist paramilitary group.

So Rebus is concerned about the murder being a precursor to further acts of sectarian violence, a concern heightened by the timing: it's the middle of the Edinburgh Festival and the city is heaving with tourists. Obviously the first thing to do is establish the identity of the victim, and this has a surprise in store for Rebus as well: the young man, Billy Cunningham, turns out to be the son of Big Ger Cafferty, a local crime boss put away by Rebus some time before and something of a recurring Moriarty to Rebus' Holmes in this series of novels. But does Cafferty know anything about what's been going on? After all, he has some previous involvement with crime on behalf of the UVF

As if that were not enough for Rebus to be worrying about, he has some problems with the ladies: his current partner Patience Aitken, a doctor, is occasionally grumbly about his being married to his job and inclined to bail out on dinner party arrangements at the last minute to go and get beaten up in a warehouse or something. Not only that but some low-level flirty activity with local lawyer Caroline Rattray has led her to go all bunny-boiler on his ass and, at one point, attack him with a can of spray paint.

With all this to worry about it's a wonder that Rebus manages to crack the case, one involving arms-running between Northern Ireland and Scotland, various bent cops including one of Rebus' immediate superiors, and Billy being involved in some computer hacking to get hold of a list of names of secret loyalists and threatening to make it public, whereupon it became apparent that he Knew Too Much and needed to be Rubbed Out. It's not quite as neat as that, though, as one local ne'er-do-well, not particularly interested in any of the niceties of sectarian disputes but well keen on the old ultraviolence, gets hold of a stash of Semtex and threatens to set it off in central Edinburgh at the height of the Festival. Will Rebus be able to chase him down in the crowd and stop him from detonating the bomb? SPOILER ALERT: yes. 

This is the first Rebus novel to appear on this list, and the first Ian Rankin novel originally published under his own name, the slightly more thick-ear thriller Blood Hunt being initially published under his Jack Harvey pseudonym. Interestingly, Mortal Causes (which is the sixth in the Rebus series which now numbers twenty-odd) and Blood Hunt were successive entries in Rankin's oeuvre, in 1994 and 1995 respectively. As I said there, Black & Blue is the only other Rebus I can swear to having read, although couldn't say for sure I might not have read one or two more. It's easy to mock the maverick cop clichés, but these are tight, efficient, enjoyable thrillers with an interesting leading character, and they evoke a strong sense of place in the same way that Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen novels do (a different place, though, obviously). If you're specifically setting out to read all of them then it'd probably be better to do it in order, but otherwise I wouldn't worry about just dipping in wherever you like. 

The only thing that bothers me a bit about Rebus is his name: it's just a bit too arch for my liking. I know there's supposed to be some sort of Polish back-story which might account for it, but, honestly, you might as well just call him Sherlock Enigma and be done with it. 

As it happens I have been to both the Edinburgh Festival (back in about 1999) and Mary King's Close, I think on this trip in 2009, although I don't seem to have any photos and the accompanying blog post doesn't mention it. I daresay if we'd encountered a mutilated corpse then that might have warranted a mention.